Research News

Student Questions Answered by Biologists through PlantingScience and Ask a Biologist

SPORE Award-winning projects are useful online resources for biology

For students seeking information in the biological sciences, two award-winning online resources hold many answers--direct from biologists and scientists in the field.

The Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE) was awarded to PlantingScience in March 2011 and Ask a Biologist in November 2010 for their contributions as innovative tools for science education.

Through PlantingScience, middle and high-school students engage in online dialogues with mentors and science experts about plant biology research projects and biology concepts in an online learning community that includes more than 600 scientists from 14 professional plant-related organizations.

For students who ever had a question about biology or what it's like to work in the biology field, Ask a Biologist lets them ask the experts--biologists themselves. Designed for students in grades preK-12, this website also features interactive and educational activities for students, teachers and parents.

Science magazine, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, awards the SPORE prize "to encourage innovation and excellence in education, as well as to encourage the use of high-quality on-line resources by students, teachers and the public."

Participants were judged by the editors of Science and a panel consisting of teachers and researchers in relevant fields, chaired by the journal's editor-in-chief. Winners were invited to write an essay describing their resources for publication in Science.


In PlantingScience, volunteer scientists work online with students, discussing plant research projects and plant biology concepts. The goal is to improve middle and high school students' understanding of science and inspire an awareness of plants and plant biology.

"PlantingScience aims to provide an authentic learning environment for secondary students and their teachers to improve understanding of how science works and how scientific research is conducted, while fostering an awareness of plants," said Claire Hemingway, one of the creators of PlantingScience.

To reach this goal, Hemingway explained that they are creating opportunities for scientists, students and teachers to collaborate using internet technologies to develop and test inquiry teaching and learning resources and also integrate plant content and processes. Hands-on learning and critical thinking is encouraged as well as team learning and dialogue between peers.

"From these activities, we anticipate that we will generate new understandings about collaborative learning environments that could be adapted for diverse disciplines interested in understanding how science is taught, learned and done," said Hemingway.

PlantingScience motivates students to ask questions and think critically while directly interacting with science experts. Hemingway explained that plants are poorly represented in many secondary school classrooms and that plant biology resources are scarce. According to a national survey, high school teachers revealed they felt the least confident in teaching plant content. Consequently, PlantingScience contributes to STEM learning for both students and teachers.

The project offers a range of curricular modules that address big ideas in biology explored through hands-on investigations with plants. Currently, curricular modules cover plant life cycles, alternation of generations, reproduction, patterns of inheritance, photosynthesis, respiration, osmosis, transpiration, cell structure and function and ecological relationships.

Hemingway observed that the success of PlantingScience was due in-part to the relationships built between schools and scientists.

"Bridges between education and research communities can be difficult to find, even when schools and scientists seek out connections," said Hemingway. "By joining the PlantingScience learning community, teachers and volunteer scientist mentors can collaborate online with relative ease and a high return on their time investment. Certainly, our society's ever increasing integration of technology into our home and school and work lives makes the project possible. But what I think underlies its success is the passion on the part of the participating teachers and mentors who share the joy of science discovery with students."

Despite rigid school schedules, Hemingway explained that teachers continue to participate in session after session of PlantingScience.

"Teachers comment that PlantingScience helps establish a culture of inquiry in their classrooms in which students take greater ownership of their learning and conversations about science become deeper," said Hemingway.

Hemingway quotes a recent teacher participant:

"PlantingScience has transformed my classroom. Students are engaged and excited about the projects and are thinking about data, how to collect it and what it means, on a different level than I've had in the past. The conversations I've had with students about research are no longer the result of a predictable lab, but instead they center around struggles with how to collect data...and they are asking each other questions about what they are doing and why."

The PlantingScience learning community continues to grow and expand in online collaborations. New plans are always in the works. This year, PlantingScience hosted a Skype video conference for an international collaboration between middle schools in Tampa, Florida and The Netherlands.

"As we look to the future, we seek to continue to integrate advancing technologies such as videoconference, which teachers and mentors would like as additional communication tools," said Hemingway.

PlantingScience is funded by NSF's Informal Science Education (ISE) program, part of the Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings (DRL).

Ask a Biologist

Using the website Ask a Biologist, students can directly interact with scientists and ask them questions about biological concepts and the biology field. Videos, audio interviews, image galleries, puzzles and games are just a few of the many activities that visitors can explore. Teaching resources, including activities and articles are also available on the site.

"Part of our goal from its early days in 1997 was to connect students, teachers and parents with working scientists. This is one of our keys to success," said Charles Kazilek, director of Technology Integration and Outreach School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University.

The website has about 1 million visitors a year and since its development in 1997 has answered more than 25,000 queries.

"The question form has been our link to the public," said Kazilek, referring to the form in which students submit their questions. "So it has been a bit of a two way street. Students and teachers learn and are able to communicate with working scientists, and we learn about what is of interest to them and use that to develop new content."

Students and teachers can turn to Ask a Biologist when textbooks don't have all the answers.

"Ask a Biologist gives students real-world answers beyond a textbook," said Kazilek. "It takes an expert to help clarify, and in some cases, reaffirm that there are, in fact, multiple competing answers or theories to a particular question. Science is dynamic. What we know today is often modified and changed tomorrow."

Ask a Biologist strategically builds itself using the brain-power of volunteers and through limited resources.

"We have been able to build a sustainable model using mostly volunteers. Having been in the business since 1997 (before Google), we have been able to grow the site on limited funding. During this time the site went from a single page to almost 3,000 pages of content," said Kazilek.

"The other key is to include kid-friendly graphics and text. We call it 'kidifying.' It is also something we keep working to improve with each new story and activity," said Kazilek.

Regarding common questions from students, Kazilek explained that about 25 percent of the questions that students ask are about becoming a biologist.

"These are the types of questions where students ask what it is like to walk in your shoes. They are testing the waters to see what career they might want to pursue," said Kazilek.

Ask a Biologist continues to develop and expand its projects and audiences. Kazilek's team is working to add Spanish and French translations of the site. They are also exploring video telepresence technology that uses computer and presentation equipment found in most classrooms. Web cameras and standard SMART boards or projectors turn classrooms into video conference tools that bring students and scientists face-to-face.

"These low cost and yet high quality images and sound permit our experts to visit and interact with students and teachers without having to travel," said Kazilek.

Ask a Biologist is supported by the NSF Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics program (called Course Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement Program or CCLI at the time of funding).